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Francis Schwartz's DALI & GALA
- an operatic anti-opera

A zany, emotionally charged work that challenges the concept of traditional music theater. 

Act I

After receiving several of Francis Schwartz's e-press releases about his new chamber opera "Dali & Gala: Opera sì, opera no", I realized that his piece for piano/performer "Malebolge Eternal" had been the beginning of a new era of Schwartz works. Several of Francis Schwartz's engaging announcements, which included comments from President Bush and Governor Schwarzenegger, led me to believe that the only way of understanding and fully enjoying this opera was by knowing what had gone into the creative process. After several e-mails we agreed on meeting. I asked him what was to be the first, last and only question of the interview: "So tell me Francis, why an opera about Dali?"

"You know, this is the 100th anniversary of Dali's birth and I always have admired his art. His daring and often outrageous public play, jeu , is enchanting. I think that he enjoyed promoting his art as much as he did producing it. And I feel close to that.

"Dali and Gala" is and is not an opera.it is at once an opera and an anti-opera. It has elements of traditional opera yet I deconstruct and put them together in a different way. In many ways.it is similar to what Dali did. You take a masterwork or style and re-work it through your own vision. That is how Art has progressed throughout the centuries.

This is a didactic opera that unabashedly confronts the public with what I see as their cultural failings and/or deficiencies. For example, I attack the frequent ignorance of other cultures or how to pronounce a word correctly in another language or the jingoistic attitude that proclaims that MY culture and MY god are superior to YOURS. As far as I know, no opera confronts these problems today. "Dali and Gala" is an artistic provocation and it is certainly a political provocation. I want to provoke thought, criticism and analysis of things the public often receives from the media, politicians, without thinking critically.

"Dali and Gala" is inspired in its sparse vocal and instrumental elements by an economical music-theater work like Stravinsky's "The Soldier's Tale" or the chamber operas of the past. It is scored for electronic sounds, 2 singers, tenor and soprano; and 3 instruments, piano, violin and clarinet. By using public participation I am able to transcend the role of the cast to include the audience's foot stomps, body percussion, gestures, all spontaneously elicited by the conductor and stage performers. The audience becomes something of an improvised chorus. Given the career desperation that exists in our music world and general pusillanimity, I wonder how many conductors would take such a leap of faith! The success of this strategy depends on how convincing the conductor and performers are in demanding from the audience their energies, their active participation. It is in the exciting communion between the professional and public forces that success lies."

And successful it was.

Act II

The premiere of "Dali and Gala", commissioned by the Bonk Festival of New Music, opened the week-long Dali Centennial Celebration at the museum that brought eminent arts figures from around the world to discuss the significance of the Catalan painter.

The performers walked onto the stage: pianist (Corey Holt), clarinetist (Jennifer Schundler) and violinist (William Goodwin) all dressed in black; Jameson Kelly, the tenor (Dali), and the soprano Lyn Lickliter, (Gala), both were wearing t-shirts with Dali's "The Hallucinogenic Toreador" imprinted on the front and the composer-conductor Francis Schwartz was elegantly attired in a tuxedo. Immediately the audience knew that we were about to be part of an unusual experience.

A fragment of the first movement of Albinoni's oboe concerto emanating from a boom box on top of the piano served as the overture to the three-act opera while the instrumentalists made facial gestures and used their bodies as percussion instruments. Suddenly, the conductor turned around, shut down the boom box, glared at the audience and announced the beginning of the first act. This action was repeated throughout the opera, at the beginning and end of each act.

Each of the acts had specific topics or non-musical themes, to which the performers often returned as if they were following a rondo form; a true fusion of musical and literary essence. These themes were not always evident and evolved through examples illustrating each point. For example, the first act dealt with the correct pronunciation of Dali and Gala's names and which syllable was to be correctly stressed, to the extent of saying that ".if you don't learn anything else from this opera at least you will learn the correct pronunciation of their names." In no time, the performers had the audience repeating their names. The public joined effortlessly and enthusiastically with the singers in repeating the names of Gala and Dali, and by doing so Schwartz corrected Dalí's often mispronounced name. I am sure none of us will ever forget that the accent is on the 2nd syllable. Also, and more subliminally, Schwartz makes an attack on individuals who are insensitive to other cultures and languages, i.e. mispronouncing names of people and places, ignorance of geography and history, etc.

The second act begins with a clear reference to Leoncavallo's "Pagliacci" 'Si puo?', one of many references from the operatic canon sprinkled throughout the work as a gesture to tradition. We learn that the name Dalí comes from the Catalan language and it signifies "possessed by desire", the theme of the second act. But Schwartz's "desire" does not refer to carnal desire, rather to bigotry using the catchy phrase: "my team, my party, my God is better than yours" as an illustration of ethnocentric attitudes from the past and the present. The act ends with performers and conductor urging the public to repeat the word: THINK!, in a chorus of mass participation.

"The Moustache Disquisition" begins the third act. In a portentous voice Dalí lets us know that he has a mustache and that Picasso does not. He imperiously states that 'hair' gives him power, something that (bald) Picasso has lost, and by doing so makes Dali the greatest artist of the century. Gala laments not having a mustache herself and swiftly moves to the theme of the act: to think critically. Using phrases in Spanish and French, Gala sings beautifully sounding melodies but when translated into English are revealed to be quite pedestrian or irreverent: (" un saco de papas", a sack of potatoes; or "un bouton sur ma fesse" a pimple on my ass). The composer illustrates how things are not what they seem. He warns the audience not to take the media and politicians at face value. He urges the public to think, to analyze and to dare to be free.

The overall performance experience was outstanding. There were times that the public participation was spontaneous. Schwartz was able to create musical tunes that automatically generated reaction from the public and had them participating with little or no effort. His objective of "extending the cast by using the public as choir" was successfully achieved. The energy and excitement of the audience was invigorating.

I have no doubt that Mr. Kelly (Dali) was convinced that he was the painter's reincarnation. His voice was potent and clear, his diction impeccable. We had no trouble understanding the lyrics. His body movements and corporal attitude were so convincing that the fact that he was not in costume (except for a black mustache drawn on his face) did not interfere in our imagining the presence of Maestro Dali. Unfortunately Gala was not as convincing. Although Miss Lickliter's voice is very pleasant, there were times where it was hard to hear or understand what she was singing. However, there was a lot of rapport between both singers, which made the "duel" arias very enjoyable; including a most humorous scene of stereophonic breathing between the two passionate singers.

Instrumentally there is not much to say. The musicians basically served as background music. At times it felt that there was little or no connection between the singers and the music. It tended to be slightly repetitive, and of secondary importance. But then again the work was centered on Dali and Gala, not the instruments. The overall effect of the singers, the instruments and the public produced a magical environment, and a unique experience to all sitting there. As one very excited lady said to Schwartz after the performance: "Thank you. I had always wanted to sing in public, I just made my debut in an opera".

As I mentioned before "Dali and Gala" as well as "Malebolge Eternal" feel like the beginning of a new era of works by Schwartz... Both of these new works incorporate all the elements that have made Schwartz extremely successful around the world: audience participation, gestures, and corporal percussion. But in contrast to most of his previous works, these new compositions aggressively demand participation beyond the musical performance. He encourages people to reflect on current social and political situations, from mass media to governmental and corporate corruption to religious intolerance. The works do not pass final judgment on any of the issues they address. They place the seeds of doubt in the audience's mind, with the hope that there will be a post-concert critical reflection, judgment and ethical action.

Elena Brown


December 2009 - see the noted tubist JAY HUNSBERGER play


on http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1-xzHfI04bQ [Editor]


© Peter Grahame Woolf